First comes a trip to the "Bone Yard" as I call it. I live on a ranch, and any animal carcasses are dumped in a corner of one of the fields. My problem is matching up and identifying the bones. There are so many of them, and all sizes and kinds. Pretty gruesome. My first visit, gave me the creeps. But I'm getting used to it, and now I find it interesting. I pretend I'm in a CSI episode.
I try to select a skull that is relatively clean and intact. The word "clean" means little, to no nasty bits or bugs. I cart all this home for a through scrubbing and closer inspection. Once scrubbed with disinfectant soap and hot water, the skull is ready to be glued and sealed. I glue any loose joints and always the teeth. Then the whole thing is sealed. I found from experimentation, that this keeps the joints from spreading when exposed to the heat of baking.
The skull, clean and glued and ready for sealing. This is a huge skull. I'm pretty sure it was a yak (Tibetan bison)
Did I mention baking? You have to have a nice large oven for this project. I use polymer clay for the sculpting. It requires baking at 265 degrees F for 30 minutes to cure. Since my only oven is in the kitchen, this is truly a test of one's love of their art. There is a horrid smell produced when baking an animal skull. I was in the middle of my first sculpture, "Father Time", when I had a date over to pick me up for dinner. Might as well let the guy in on my little secret early on in the relationship. Well, to make a long story short, he never called again. Just proves he wasn't the perfect man for me. But I digress.
Once everything is nicely sealed, creating the armature begins. I use all kinds of wire sizes, depending on what the situation calls for. Mostly aluminum and galvanized steel wire, for their non-rusting properties. The skull provides many natural holes for inserting wire, but I always have to drill a few extra holes. With the first sculpture, I made the mistake of wiring the jaw assembly
to the head too soon. With the mouth wide open, I had a hard time fitting the whole thing into the oven. I've learned that the jaw should be attached, only after all the baking and painting is completed. This is the completed armature, ready for clay. The head is not attached, just propped up for visual effect. He's starting to look interesting, huh?
This skull is heavy and huge! Barely fits in the oven. His tongue looks like a giant jalapeno pepper. The color of clay I used was whatever was plentiful, looks silly in orange and green, but it all gets painted.
Applying the clay is the tricky part. The clay needs to be seamless. I roll out large pieces with the pasta machine, and then join them by rolling together between 2 pieces of wax paper. Then I drape and smooth the clay over the armature, trimming any excess as I go. The first bake is never perfect. That's OK because I know I can go back and sand off any lumps and add more clay where needed. This process repeats until I am satisfied.
Once I'm happy with the clay, the whole thing is given multiple coats of gesso, and then I make the stand. And he's ready to stand on his own. The lower jaw is still not attached. Makes it easier to paint the underside.
The painting is now well under way. Notice how he's now residing on the kitchen table? He has become too tall to work on comfortably on my workbench. Lovely kitchen decor I think. And the teasing comments from my friends, "Are we having teradactyl for dinner tonight?"
I decide that the feathers need to be detachable, and build a separate armature to hold them. This armature is painted to match and attaches to the back of the scull with 4 tiny screws. I also decided the base was too tall, and cut 5 inches off the bottom of the 2x2.
Well "Battle Cry" is finished, and I'm excited to start the next sculpture, "Speedy." He will be fun and comical. Why am I creating these sculptures? Good question. They really challenge my design abilities, and I love a good challenge. Each sculpture is unique, with new design problems to solve. I have conquered the "gross out" factor, and no longer have that queasy feeling in my stomach. I've learned a lot about bones, and now view them as fascinating material to work with. And maybe in the end, I am somehow honoring the animal by giving it a second life.